Cristiano Ronaldo departed Al Nassr’s encounter at Al Ettifaq before his team’s fate was officially sealed, but by then the race was as good as run.
Nassr were being held to a 1-1 draw in Dammam on Saturday night, but to the west, Al Ittihad were cruising. Needing one victory from their remaining two matches to secure the Saudi Pro League title, the division’s front-runners were 3-0 up at Al Fayha. Allaying fears that last season’s championship collapse could repeat, Ittihad prepared to celebrate a first top-flight crown in 14 years.
Ittihad’s win ended Nassr’s title chances. Ronaldo’s night concluded early, too, the team captain substituted on 84 minutes having picked up an injury. Whether or not the Portuguese forward, 38, recovers in time for the campaign finale on Wednesday, when Nassr host Al Fateh, remains to be seen.
What is certain is that he will finish his debut season in Saudi Arabia without any silverware. And that will no doubt sting.
When Ronaldo’s transfer to Nassr was announced in late December, the club sat second in the table. By the time he was introduced days later to the media and then an expectant, sold-out Mrsool Park, Nassr were perched at the summit.
At his opening press conference, albeit answering questions posed solely by a moderator, Ronaldo did not outline specific targets for the season, saying simply: “I’m coming here to win, to play, to enjoy, to be part of the success of the country and the culture of the country.
“And I’m here altogether with Al Nassr, with my coach, with my president, and all the people of Al Nassr. What I want is to enjoy, to smile, and play football.”
Admittedly, he has not always enjoyed his time on the pitch. Ronaldo has often shown his frustration a little too robustly, directing his ire at teammates, opposition players, the Nassr coaching staff (manager Rudi Garcia left the club last monthamid reported dressing-room unrest) and rival fans.
It has been interpreted in conflicting ways: Ronaldo was unhappy in Saudi football and seeking a swift escape back to Europe, or he merely expected more from both his own performance and his team’s.
For sure, more was expected of Ronaldo. Yes, he has scored 14 goals in 16 league matches, but those were gleaned from eight games in all. He has failed to find the net in half his league appearances.
He did not register in the cups either: the Super Cup showpiece defeat to Al Ittihad, back in January with Ronaldo surely still settling into new surroundings; the two King’s Cup matches. In the latter, the semi-final late last month, he could not prevent Nassr from slipping to a shock exit at home to Al Wehda.
However, while Ronaldo’s reputation and resume ensures he will be held to exacting standards, even as his career carries to its conclusion, the anticipation is that next season – the expectation is Ronaldo will definitely stay (his deal has two more years to run) – will offer a truer reflection of what he can give.
Saudi football is set to embark on a transformative summer, the spark maybe coming as early as this week, with a series of star names, both players and managers, to arrive in the kingdom.
Undeniably, Nassr will benefit, with a new head coach in place and a greater calibre of player to complement Ronaldo. The only issue, naturally, is that others will strengthen significantly also. Al Hilal, Nassr’s crosstown rivals freed finally from their transfer ban, could conceivably boast the marquee, former Barcelona trio of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
There will, then, be even more onus on Ronaldo to propel Nassr to a first title since 2019. He was determined to do that this season; undeniably, he will be hurt by his inability to do so.
But his transfer to Nassr can still bring success on the pitch to the club. As Ronaldo gets set to draw a line under his debut campaign in Saudi football, thoughts will turn quickly to next season.
Nassr must make sure they provide a better platform for Ronaldo to perform. At the same time, he needs to deliver on the sizable investment in his services.